Saturday, January 16, 2010

Culture in the News #5 "Canadian miners go on strike against Brazilian mine owners."

Not only Americans make blunders when managing people in foreign countries. In this case, it was Brazilian managers struggling to manage an American workers' union which branches out into Canada, as reported by the IHT on Jan 15.
After reading the half-page news item, you can see that the issues at hand are pretty straight-forward. The Brazilian owners (global mining company Vale, largest in the world) propose two things: 1) changing the pension plan from "defined benefit" to "defined contribution" (Hardly revolutionary--all pension plans have been moving that way for the past 20 years and all newly created plans are "defined benefit"); and 2) putting a cap on a bonus plan linked to the price of nickel (Again, this is plain common sense: the plan has a "floor", it's only logical that it should also have a "ceiling", though the parties involved will negotiate endlessly over the amounts to be set).
So what's the big deal?
Culture. (Surprised?)
Curiously, reporters asked the people involved whether different management cultures (Brazilian an Canadian) were the issue. They all denied it... As the saying goes "fish are not aware of the water they are swimming in". To an outsider, the culture issue is obvious.
The workers complain about the way management is behaving, and that has driven them to harden their stance. "The other owner, you knew where they were coming from" said Chris Shrower, a millwright. "These ones just want to show us that they're the boss."
Management is behaving in a way that is typical in Brazil (high Power Distance culture). They are no longer opening the books to the union, like the previous owners used to do. Such transparency is virtually unheard of in high Power Distance cultures, though it is often practiced in low Power Distance cultures like the US and some Northern Europe countries. They are making decisions at the top, with little or no involvement from the workers. This is normal behavior in Brazil (high PDI), but perceived as offensive in the US/Canada (low PDI).
It's interesting to note also how language reflects culture. The expression in English is "to make a decision". This implies doing something, making something. It also implies the possibility of making something with others, doing something as a group.
In Portuguese the expression is "to take a decision". This implies that there is something on the table and someone has to "take" it. Should the union be allowed to "take it"? Heavens no! (from a high PDI point of view). It is the responsibility (and the privilege) of management to "take it".
There are power struggles between workers and managers in all cultures. In a "mono-culture" environment such struggles take less time to be worked out, because the parties involved understand where they are coming from. In a cross-culture environment the struggles may last much longer than expected, because the expectations on both sides are frustrated, due to lack of understanding of where the other party is coming from. The strike in this case is lasting six months...

No comments:

Post a Comment